This is a tattoo I have on my left shoulder and arm….

Full Tikkun Olam Lantern Tattoo

It depicts the Star of David, the symbol of Judaism, ablaze in a stone pillar lantern. Etched onto the lantern are the words, “Tikkun Olam.”

“Tikkun Olam” is an ancient rabbinical Hebrew phrase, meaning, “To heal the world.” I don’t talk about my Jewish heritage much, but suffice it to say it is important to me. This tattoo indicates how much, and why.

I was raised Jewish, with two Jewish parents, and four Jewish grandparents. I grew up in a rich intellectual and artistic tradition. I absorbed from the Jewish community around me the values of achievement, earned prosperity, and of excellence — not just in service of self, but of others, and the community. By extension, this is to include the whole world.

To me, Judaism is a religion of social justice, peace, wisdom, service, and scholarship.

And it is for this reason that I do not feel that the actions of the state of Israel towards Palestine are in keeping with the best traditions of Judaism, with “Tikkun Olam.” In fact, they are the very opposite.

In no sense can the decades-long starvation, bombing, murder, imprisonment, torture, and ghettoization of innocent civilians be considered social justice. The continuing mistreatment of Palestinians is fundamentally abhorrent and unjust. If you see the videos, photos, and headlines today and feel disgust, you are right to. I share your feelings deeply.

No event in history justifies these atrocities, especially not the Holocaust. If anyone wishes to claim that the millions who died in the concentration camps legitimize these acts of aggression and racism today, I ask you to consider what those millions might think of that idea while they were enduring their own suffering. And World War 2 scarred the earth with unimaginable death, not just of Jews. How will more death undo that fact? It won’t. And for 50 years it has failed to.

At best, some might say Israel has a right to attack those who attack her. Leaving aside the asymmetry of this conflict of homemade rockets vs. phosphorous bombs from F-16 fighters; the wholesale slaughter of innocent civilians; and the ongoing policies of socio-economic and cultural oppression waged against the Palestinian people; such logic echoes the Hamurrabic code, “An eye for an eye.” As I recall, Judaic laws were intended to replace that barbarism.

I am sure many of my non-Jewish friends are afraid of speaking out, for fear of being labeled “anti-Semitic.” You are not anti-Semitic in questioning the actions of a government. The actions of the government of the nation of Israel, the government and nation themselves, that nation’s residents, and Jews as a whole are not all the same thing.

To question a government is not to question Jews or Judaism. To protest destruction of the Palestinians is not to advocate the destruction of the Jews. That is a false equivalency you have been sold, over and over again, by a vast multi-generational propaganda system led by politicians who have sold us out. There are millions of Jews around the world, including in Israel, who stand united against these horrors. They, and I, need your voice. I urge you to break your silence and stand.

If you’re unaware of the horrors taking place in Palestine, they are well-documented by Jews and non-Jews alike. Here’s an Israeli general’s son, Miko Peled, talking about them, and his own journey of realization:

To my fellow Jews, perhaps you agree with me. Perhaps you don’t. But I ask you to meet me in Tikkun Olam and ask yourself if this is the face of Judaism you wish to show to the world, if this represents you and what you truly hope and believe.

Because from where I stand, in Tikkun Olam, Israel’s actions have nothing to do with Judaism. They are militaristic nationalism, coercing a global consent via repeated cries of victimization and racism, which grow heavier by the minute with each new coating of Palestinian children’s blood.

I was Jewish before I knew what Israel was, before I wept on my knees like a child at the Wailing Wall:

Will at the Wailing Wall
Me crying at the Wailing Wall, January 2005. Photographer unknown.

watched the sun rise over the Sea of Galilee:

Daybreak over the Sea of Galilee.
Daybreak, with birds, over the Sea of Galilee. January 2005. Photo by Will Spencer

marveled at Masada:

Sunrise over Masada
Sunrise over Masada, January 2005. Photo by Will Spencer

bathed in the sun of Eilat:

Eilat, on the Red Sea
Eilat, on the Red Sea, January 2005. Photo by Will Spencer

and looked out over the Golan Heights:

Signpost on the Golan Heights
Signpost on the Golan Heights, January 2005. Photo by Will Spencer

And I would still be Jewish if all of those things were to disappear. (Although I hope they don’t. A solution exists.)

Because I believe that Jews, like so many other religions, have made an all-too-human mistake. The “Promised Land,” “Nirvana,” the “Kingdom of God” — these are not physical, material places in this world or the next, but states of being in the human mind and heart, right now. They are ancient metaphors for our better selves, and the better world that lives in all of us, if we would only make the effort to discover it.

That better place cannot be claimed by conquest. No bullet or bomb can gain us entrance. Violence only bars the gates more firmly.

Upon the key, only the word “compassion” is written — not just for one’s friends and loved ones, but for others, strangers, and oneself.
Though the Jews inhabit Israel now, we do not inhabit The Promised Land. My hope is that we find our way there, and lead the world in the effort.

“Tikkun Olam” can perhaps show the way.

That is why I chose to illustrate the concept with a lantern.

July 22, 2014

This post originally appeared on Facebook, and on

Tattoo art and ink by Salem at Eye of the Tiger Tattoo, San Francisco, CA. Based on my design.

4 thoughts

  1. So beautifully written! Thank you, Will. I have and will continue to speak out against the atrocities of the state of Israel against the Palestinians. I trust that together we can apply pressure that will help to stop the hatred and carnage. Sending much love to you and to all.

    1. Thank you, Fred! What an amazing comment. Yes, by working together to spread the love, and by sharing the truth from the best place in our hearts, in the spirit of peace, I do believe we can end the hatred and the carnage. It’s the only answer that makes sense. <3 Sending big love right back to you, from Japan!

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